The action, vibe and tacky clothes of The Post are pure 1971, but the drive, urgency and primal scream of the thing are all about 2017–a return of the day and age of relentless White House attacks on the press, attempts to put a stranglehold on the media and to discredit truth as “fake news.”
Stephen Spielberg directed the highly charged political thriller, and it stars Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as the paper’s executive editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee. As movie projects go, this one came together very fast–and mostly during a time when many reasonable people believed that a serious and experienced candidate would actually be elected president.
In mid-October 2016, newbie screenwriter Liz Hannah handed her agent a 165-page script about a middle-aged woman coming into her own, a band of journalistic crusaders joining together and the leaking of explosive official documents—detailing the duplicity, tragic lies and waste of the Vietnam War—known as the Pentagon Papers. By February 2017, the script had landed a buyer (former Sony chair Amy Pascal), not to mention the services of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks. And here we are, months later, mired in a Trump presidency that even prompts the normally reticent Spielberg to say that he made the movie for an audience “who have spent basically the last 13, 14 months thirsting and starving for the truth.”
When Hanks and Streep share scenes, they’re subtly spectacular.
After seeing the strongly acted, well-written, crisply and expertly directed The Post, audiences are likely to leave the theater satisfied and slightly more hopeful, if not lifted out of their seats. As with such predecessors as All the President’s Men and Spotlight (its screenwriter Josh Singer co-wrote The Post), the movie is a love letter to dogged, ink-stained journalists, clacking typewriters, all-night deadlines, the roar of printing presses and newsies hawking morning editions.
It sounds some terrific David vs. Goliath notes that, along with John Williams’ noble, rousing score, sweep us up and energize us. The David is the Washington Post, always low on funds, a distant also-ran to the big guns like the New York Times. The Goliath is the increasingly unhinged, vindictive President Nixon, who threatens to bring down the full weight of the U.S. government on the Times for publishing a smattering of the forbidden documents.
It’s thrilling to watch the socially well-connected, widowed Graham and rascally Bradlee clash over what move to make next, then dispatching a team of reporters (an excellent, restrained Bob Odenkirk, for one) to get hold of more of the incendiary documents, and ultimately publish them for the entire world to see. Their gambit not only helped send Nixon packing, it also transformed the Washington Post from a local paper to a national player.
As played to the hilt by Spielberg and company, the film is a First Amendment, speaking-truth-to-power thriller, and it succeeds fairly well on that level. Shot with crisp intensity and edited by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn, there are tingly, breakneck chases across the corridors of power Washington, scenes of RAND Corporation employee Daniel Ellsberg (well-played by Matthew Rhys) breaking his silence, furtive late-night photocopying of secret papers, anonymous messengers dropping off contraband material on reporters’ desks and constant reminders–as if any were needed–that a democracy without a free press is no democracy at all. Sure, some of the situations are corny, while some of the movie plays as didactic and lecture-y, but damn if Spielberg, the script and cast don’t make such moments heart-pounding and irresistible.
The Post gains much of its power from Streep’s performance (her best in a long while) as an intelligent, prominent, normally risk-averse woman shaken out of her comfort zone when her husband Philip, the Post’s publisher, killed himself and left her as the well-meaning but completely inexperienced owner of the paper and Newsweek. Graham’s story becomes an inspiring feminist epic as the character begins to find her voice, show her mettle and reveal her spine of steel.
In doing so, Graham inspires everyone around her; in playing her so beautifully, Streep should inspire a nation of Grahams. Watch for a phone scene when Streep as Graham must make a momentous choice: to publish or not to publish? Streep makes it a lesson in brilliant screen acting by keeping things simple, human and totally accessible.
As for Hanks, he can’t hope to shake the ghost of Jason Robards’ towering and definitive performance as the crotchety and belligerent Bradlee in All The President’s Men, but he’s terrifically enjoyable. And when Hanks and Streep share scenes, they’re subtly spectacular.
Serving as a mirror image of 2017, The Post is absolutely, punishingly timely, even when it too often tells us what’s on its noble mind instead of making us feel it.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.